Conversations with my teenager about the Internet

“I don’t feel it’s my job to insulate my children from the world, but rather it’s to be the best custodian of their future selves I can be. Most of the time that means preparing them with the knowledge and tools they’ll need, in this case it means understanding I don’t need to share my pride in them in digital media format for that pride to exist, and in the process it means protecting their digital identities long enough for them to make a mess of it themselves.” – Ryan McLaughlin, Removing my children from the Internet

The reason I started to teach myself web design was to share my life as a new, young mother. It was 1997, I had discovered Internet discussion forums while pregnant. Once my daughter was born, I wanted to share photos with my new online friends. The only way to really do that at the time was to create a website and the parenting forum had a sub forum dedicated to HTML. We shared HTML tips along with our advice about weaning and suggestions as to how to get baby to sleep through the night.

It turned out that my new HTML skills were in demand, what was purely an interest turned into a career. As I began to investigate the Internet outside of those parenting forums. I started to realise the power of what we would now call my “digital identity”. I discovered that I could promote my skills online by way of writing; realised how important it was that I was searchable by my real name and that positive things were found.

As I developed my own digital identity, it started to seem wrong to also develop that of my young daughter. Despite the fact that I had learned my new skills in order to put baby photos online, I saw that continuing doing so would mean I was also creating a digital record that could potentially follow her around. This was all long before Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. I had no idea how valuable our digital identities would become, however even in those early days we would search for information on people we had met.There were other concerns, as I started writing books and attracting some unwanted attention, I didn’t want too much detail of my daughter’s life displayed online. However most of my decision to not post things linking her name to mine was to leave her a blank slate when it came to creating her own presence online.

My daughter is now sixteen. When I read Ryan McLaughlin’s article and saw people discussing it on Twitter I thought it might be interesting to talk to my daughter about what it was like growing up with parents who have strong digital identities and what she thought of that decision I made all those years ago.

On there being rather a lot more information about us on the Internet than the average parents,

“I was mucking about online and typing in peoples names into Google. I guess I was shocked when I typed in Rachel Andrew and clicked on images to see millions of my mum’s face […] none of my friends’ parents had a single thing about them anywhere.”

Over the years my daughter has sometimes been with me when I’ve met someone for the first time, who I’ve known for years online. She knows we build relationships and discuss anything and everything online. This has meant we’ve needed to discuss safety issues when meeting people from the Internet. Saying “do as I say and not as I do” wouldn’t have prepared my daughter for a real world where people do make friendships and relationships online. By the same token I have never filtered our internet connection at home, or blocked sites. I’ve trusted her to use her internet access sensibly and to talk to us if she came across anything she was upset by. However, she has come across filtering in other contexts.

“I find it very annoying when schools block sites that they decide are inappropriate. Sites like YouTube are often blocked which I often use in research for work so blocking them is extremely annoying. Things that are very innocent search engines can flag up as dodgy just because a parent or school has decided a word in your search or something related is bad. This often prohibits research and to be honest it’s just really frustrating.”

As we have had so many conversations about the Internet, privacy and safety my daughter is very aware of these issues. I’ve often heard her explaining to friends how to check the privacy of their Facebook pages for example. I asked her what she thought about the things she sees her peers post publicly.

“I do worry about friends sometimes when I see them posting public things on stuff like Facebook and Twitter. It’s mainly photographs I worry about. If something dodgy is posted which has your face in it you are linked to it and once it’s out there it’s out there forever. I often see photos of my friends on nights out which I just think really are going to come back to haunt them when they’re older. When I see things like this I just drop a word in to my friends and I think this is something more people should do. I’m often the person taking photos at birthdays and parties so I always make sure that all my friends are able to let me know if they don’t like or want a certain image on Facebook. You just have to be careful.”

I’ve spoken to my daughter before about that early decision not to post lots of photographs and information about her online. It is obviously hard for either of us to imagine the situation any other way but I asked her what she thought about that and how she felt it might have affected her had there been a lot of information about her online at this point – that she hadn’t posted.

“I’m really glad you didn’t use my real name when talking about me when I was younger. It meant that I could decide if and how I wanted to talk about myself online. I still don’t use my real name anywhere that is public just to keep some things about my personal life private. […] No-one wants to search for their name and find a naked baby photo of them with their mum talking about embarrassing things they have done.”

As Internet professionals, people who work and promote ourselves online, sharing details of ourselves and our lives is something that we do very naturally. We accept that the nature of what we do means that there is a lot of detail about our lives online. I’m very glad however that my level of “internet fame” such as it is, has not also created an online identity for my daughter that she now needs to try and counter with the version of herself that she wants to share. I’m also glad that this blank slate has allowed her, as a young adult, to start to interact with us online in her own way. It is a fun part of our relationship, and one I think we wouldn’t have if she were desperately trying to disentangle her online identity from ours. I will leave her with the last word, as it is her thoughts on this that really matter.

“I want to warn parents about posting photos and details of their child’s life using their real name. Just imagine what your angry teenage child is going to think when they find all this stuff about them online. So just create your child a silly nick name, I promise you they would prefer that to having their name plastered everywhere with embarrassing and unwanted posts and photos.”

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